AURORA (POPULATION 1,670)
In the City of Aurora, we quickly moved our City Council meetings to an online format when the pandemic hit Minnesota in March. With training (and a little grace), all members of staff and council are now familiar with Zoom. The city purchased some iPads, which are available for council members and staff to use. Council meeting materials are provided in both printed and electronic format.
As the pandemic has continued, we have moved to a hybrid model — staff and elected officials are welcome to attend the meeting in the council chambers or via Zoom. This allows everyone to function as they feel comfortable. We typically have two to four of our five council members attend in person. We do not allow members of the public to attend the meetings in person. We have a fairly small council chambers, which limits social distancing, and want to provide all members of the public with a consistent experience. So, residents can watch the meeting via Facebook Live, and they can interact via video or telephone.
Challenges and benefits
As with a fully virtual meeting, the hybrid model is not without its challenges, including lag time in video or audio. One additional challenge of the hybrid model is that those attending the meeting in person tend to have a more robust conversation than those attending via electronic means. The biggest benefit to this type of meeting is the flexibility. Those who attend the meeting can be anywhere and still feel like an active, engaged part of the city. It also allows members who prefer to meet in person to still see others face-to-face. Another benefit is that livestreaming the meetings via Facebook has increased attendance compared to our traditional in-person meetings. However, public comment has remained consistent.
The changes we’ve made to accommodate virtual meetings will continue to benefit the city even after the pandemic is over. We purchased a big-screen TV, which allows visual aids to be presented to the City Council. The TV will also allow some people to attend meetings electronically, as needed, in the future. Overall, the City of Aurora has pivoted to meet the need for a more electronic format, while also providing a stable, conversation-focused approach.
MORRIS (POPULATION 5,452)
The City of Morris has been conducting virtual meetings since the start of the COVID- 19 crisis. We do this for the safety of the City Council, staff, and the public.
We hold our meetings via Zoom, and switching to that format was made easier because we had already gone paperless with our meeting materials over a year ago. At that time, we issued iPads to the council members.
Residents join in council chambers
Cities across Minnesota are conducting meetings in many different ways, and we chose a combination approach. While the council members attend meetings remotely, I am in the council chambers to facilitate both the virtual meeting and any residents who show up to the chambers.
We’ve kept meetings open to the public by allowing residents to attend in the council chambers, while following the proper protocols of wearing masks and social distancing. We have a big-screen TV to show what is happening on Zoom.
When the time comes for a member of the public to talk to the council, I simply move away and allow them to sit at the computer. This has worked well since we haven’t had many members of the public attend meetings.
Challenge of larger meetings
In Morris, we rarely get visitors to our meetings, even for our annual budget review. But we usually do get more activity for public hearings. This year we chose to put off a special assessment project until 2021. We did this partly to avoid the public hearing issue and partly because residents are feeling the economic impact of the pandemic.
Our Planning Commission recently had a new solar ordinance to review and, for the first time, we let the general public participate in a meeting via Zoom. Things went OK, but as a small city, we don’t have the IT personnel to facilitate some of the new technology. There is a learning curve.
Continue virtual option?
Many residents have asked us to keep the virtual option after the pandemic is under control. We have not discussed it yet, but my assumption is that we will go back to live, in-person meetings as soon as it is safe.
However, I do see some advantages to continuing a virtual option. For example, travel sometimes makes it difficult to attend meetings in person. So, this is something we may consider down the road.